Japan was forced to abandon its mission to Mars carrying Canadian research equipment Tuesday after space officials failed in a final bid to put the trouble-ridden Nozomi probe back on course to orbit the Red Planet.
The Nozomi orbiter was scheduled to end a five-year journey next week when it reached Mars, but officials at Japan's space agency said the probe was off-target and they tried firing its thrusters late Tuesday to save the mission. With the orbiter low on fuel, it was their last chance.
"I'm saddened to say we have given up on inserting the craft into the Martian orbit," said Yasunori Madagawa, director of external affairs for JAXA, Japan's space agency. "It's true Nozomi made some important observations, but its primary objective was to observe Mars. It's a pity we were not able to."
On-board Japan's first interplanetary explorer was the Canadian-made Thermal Plasma Analyser, funded and managed by the Canadian Space Agency and developed at the University of Calgary's Institute for Space Research.
The instrument - the first from Canada to go beyond Earth's orbit - was to investigate the interaction of the Martian atmosphere with energized particles in the solar winds. The failure of Nozomi represents a $5-million loss for Canada.
"It is indeed a major loss to the program," Alain Berinstain, acting director of planetary exploration and space astronomy for the Canadian Space Agency said Tuesday. "We've put in a lot of resources, a lot of time, a lot of energy. The scientists, especially at the University of Calgary, have really put a lot of effort into this, and it is a big loss.
"We have to put it into perspective, though," Dr. Berinstain said from the agency's headquarters in St-Hubert, Que. "The Japanese colleagues of ours have lost an entire spacecraft - and that's a much bigger loss."
Nozomi, which means "hope" in Japanese, was to orbit Mars at an altitude of about 890 kilometres to try to determine if the red planet has a magnetic field. It also was seeking a close-up examination of the moons of Mars - Phobos and Deimos.
Japan began its rescue operation Tuesday, sending commands that instructed the probe to bypass a short-circuit in its main thrusters. That would have enabled it to intersect with the Martian orbit, but the 541-kilogram, dragonfly-shaped craft did not respond.
"We are confident from discussing details of the failure and the recovery efforts that everything was done to try and ensure the success of the mission," said David Kendall, acting senior director of the Space Science Program at the Canadian Space Agency.
"The failure could not have been predicted."
Nozomi was launched July 4, 1998, from the Kagoshima Space Centre in Japan and carried a total of 15 scientific instruments from Japan, Canada, Germany, Sweden and the United States.
But the probe's journey was plagued with trouble: Malfunctions altered its trajectory, putting it into a course that was too low, raising fears it might crash into - and possibly contaminate - the planet's surface. As well, it was behind schedule, with electrical and communications equipment badly damaged by solar flares.
Despite Tuesday's failure, JAXA officials were able to lower the chances of Nozomi's collision with Mars. The probability that the probe would hit the planet is now close to zero, down from about 1 per cent earlier, a JAXA spokesman said Tuesday.
Nozomi will likely escape the red planet's gravitational field and go into a long-term orbit of our solar system, the spokesman said, adding that Japanese scientists will continue to modify Nozomi to carry out alternative missions, including monitoring solar activity, as it carves a wide path around the solar system. One lap is expected to take two years.
"From the standpoint of planetary exploration, many difficulties lay in our path on this journey, but the team here did their best under the circumstances," said Madagawa. "The experience itself is a valuable resource of data for our future planetary explorations."
Nozomi is part of an international fleet of Mars probes.
As for scientists at the Canadian Space Agency, they had already lined up another journey to Mars, partnering with NASA on the Phoenix mission in 2007, which will try to land on planet's surface.
Dr. Berinstain said Canada will contribute a laser-based instrument to study the atmosphere during the NASA mission, but this time from the surface.
The loss of Nozomi "is not something that is going to break our program ... we will definitely continue to want to observe Mars and do some science on Mars," he said.
Dr. Kendall said Canada will continue to work with JAXA, noting that the Nozomi probe was the third science mission on which the two countries have collaborated.
The probe's failure isn't Japan's first in its space program: Last month, an H-2A rocket carrying a pair of spy satellites strayed from its course and was destroyed just minutes after liftoff. Because the H-2A is the workhorse of Japan's space program, a review of the failure is expected to force the postponement of several other missions.
NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey are orbiting the planet and sending back images to Earth. Over the next month or so, the European Space Agency's Mars Express and three other spacecraft are expected to land on Mars.